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Surrey RCMP seeks public’s help to solve Cree woman’s death

Family of Deanna Desjarlais unhappy with police response to missing person reports

  • Sep. 27, 2016 11:00 a.m.

by Andrew Fleming

Surrey Mounties have released a photo of a young woman found dead in a heavily wooded section of Hawthorne Park on May 17 in the hope someone will recognize her and help them figure out how she got there.

She was known only as Jane Doe until Sept. 13 when a thumbprint finally identified her as Deanna Desjarlais, a 27-year-old Cree woman from Saskatchewan who was living in the Downtown Eastside area and who was first reported missing with the Vancouver police only a week before her badly decomposed body was found.

“The Surrey RCMP is asking anyone who may have seen Ms. Desjarlais in the weeks leading up to May 17 to call us,” said Cpl. Scotty Schumann. “If we can determine her movements during this time, it may assist us in determining what ultimately led to her unfortunate death.”

The BC Coroners Service continues to look into the cause of death along with Lower Mainland District Integrated Forensic Identification Service, although so far nothing suspicious has been identified. Desjarlais was 5’4″, weighed approximately 126 lbs. (57kg) and had black hair and brown eyes.

Dana Morenstein, a family friend, wishes police had instead released Desjarlais’ photo back when she was first reported missing. Although she would’ve already been passed away by then, it might have been easier to find out what happened to her. Morenstein believes she met with foul play.

“The Vancouver Police Department never released any photo of her when she was reported missing,” said Morenstein, a teacher at the Kahkewistahaw First Nation near Regina. “There were two separate missing persons reports, and no photo or media release were ever released. We know she was in the Downtown Eastside and, given the history and how vulnerable indigenous women can be in that circumstance, we feared something bad had happened and unfortunately, we feel like the police didn’t really investigate it seriously.”

The VPD opened a missing-person file May 9 at the request of one of Desjarlais’ friends but closed it shortly afterward later. A second report was filed June 30, by then more than a month after her body had been found.

Vancouver police say they receive approximately 4,000 missing-person reports annually, and usually only between four to 12 remain unsolved by the end of the year.

“Had her missing person case been taken more seriously, then perhaps her body would’ve been found sooner and we would have more information about what happened to her and if she was in fact murdered,” said Morenstein. “I think it is a disservice to assume this was a case of a native woman stumbling into a dark wooded area with a needle and injecting herself, overdosing and dying. I think that is why so many people target indigenous women, because of the stereotypes surrounding them.”

The issue of police handling of similar cases is currently under the microscope at a $58-million national inquiry that began in August tasked with studying the systemic causes of — and institutional responses to — high levels of violence against First Nations women and girls. Morenstein said she turned to social media out of frustration that the police weren’t doing enough to solve the disappearance of an indigenous woman with substance abuse problems.

“I started a Facebook page and created a missing person poster and started paying for advertising so that people in Vancouver would see Deanna’s photo in their feed. I made a posting that got almost 500 shares and that way were able to get her picture out, because we figured maybe someone would see it and be able to give us some information.”

But no one did.

Morenstein added that the photo the RCMP chose to release of Desjarlais looking dishevelled and unhappy is causing the family additional pain.

“A (Serious Crimes Unit) detective phoned me asking if they could use a photo from our Facebook page, where we have a lot of pictures of her. When we saw the media release, we were surprised to see they had chosen another photo that the family found was very unflattering of her. So I spoke with the detective and let him know we weren’t happy with that, and he said that hopefully that photo will help the investigation.”

Surrey RCMP Sgt. Alanna Dunlop said she couldn’t comment on where they found the photo, which blurs out any identifying details in the background.

“I can’t tell you specifically where it is sourced from, however it is something that we would’ve consulted with the investigators on, as we do in any missing person case,” she told the Leader.

Dunlop said the decision to release photos and public alerts are decided on a case by case basis.

“It is so complex. Each case is unique and is investigated as a unique case although there are policies in place to guide our investigations. There are always circumstances that are specific to each case because each person is unique.”

She added that investigators are doing their best to determine how Desjarlais died. “I can’t comment on our investigation but I can sure you that any investigation like this is treated very seriously and investigated in a very vigorous manner.”

Her body has since been transported back to Saskatchewan and was buried Sept. 22 near her mother’s grave on the Kawacatoose First Nation reserve.

Anyone with information regarding the case is urged to call the RCMP at 604-599-0502 or, if they want to remain anonymous, Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS.

B.C. declared a public health emergency in April due to a surge in drug-related deaths and overdoses.

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